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Detained Afghan Refugees are Freed

January 10, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ Thirty-one Afghan refugees, waving American flags and grinning broadly, were released from federal detention Friday after up to 18 months in custody for trying to slip into the United States illegally.

″While I was there, I felt a bitterness,″ said Mohan Singh, 16, gesturing to the Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center in Manhattan. ″But now I am free. I am very much thankful.″

Singh, like many of the refugees, walked from the center into the arms of waiting relatives. They were ringed by reporters, lawyers, INS officials and politicians who spurred the mass release.

″It behooves us as people who consider ourselves moral and civil to afford a refuge to those people who seek freedom,″ said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. The Afghans, he said, ″should have been welcomed as heroes.″

According to the United Nations, an estimated 4.5 million Afghans, about a third of the population, have fled the Asian nation since Soviet troops entered the country in December 1979 to bolster the Communist government and fighting broke out between these forces and Moslem guerrillas.

The INS detained the refugees for trying to enter the country with forged passports or no documents at all, and was seeking to return them to the countries they last lived in, chiefly Pakistan or India.

But after five- to 18-month detentions, two hunger strikes, two lawsuits, a protest march and increasing political appeals, the INS agreed to the release Thursday evening after a daylong negotiations.

″We felt that it was the appropriate time under all the circumstances,″ said J. Scott Blackman, assistant district director. ″I would certainly characterize it as a humanitarian gesture.″

He said the INS would continue to detain illegal immigrants and stressed that the Afghans had been paroled without any rights of citizenship. ″They are not here legally,″ although they will be allowed to remain, Blackman said.

Abdul Quader Rafiqi of Jersey City, N.J., said his brother, Abdul Bari, paid $1,000 to a Pakistani to arrange his legal entry, but was simply put on a flight to New York without documents. Abdul Bari, 18, spent 16 months in detention.

″I’d like to live here and to study and to get a job,″ he said Friday, an arm around his older brother.

Many of the Afghans spoke bitterly of the Soviet Union and said they fled Afghanistan to avoid conscription in the Afghan army. All sought political asylum in the United States.

″The Soviets take my country. They killed my father and brother. They wanted to kill me,″ said Mohammed Ida, 22. ″So I come here, because the United States is kind to people.″

Talks will continue to determine the refugees’ eventual status, but they will be permitted to live where they want and to hold jobs, officials said. If they leave the country, they may not be allowed to return.

″They don’t have any specified status but they will be tolerated here indefinitely,″ said Arthur Helton, a lawyer who has represented the Afghans. ″They will be become part of America now.″

Update hourly